Monday, April 30, 2012

Living the Dream

Often times when people ask "what are you doing today" there is a somewhat common sarcastic answer "living the dream". I think I might be able to answer sans sarcasm. I currently own a restaurant in one of the most interesting places in the world, cook food that I love, serve it to people that love it in turn, have an outdoor terrace with possibly one of the best views on the planet, and continually get to meet some really intriguing people that seem inclined to buy me shots of Patron or a New World Chai (my favorite of my creations- Cocoa infused tequila, bourbon, cinnamon tincture). Now I'm not a big drinker, but few people get to hang out and drink with great people and call it work, fewer get make money from it. 

What I see on my way to work is a little different

Sunday, April 15, 2012

16 Hour Days in Murphystan

Murphy's Law: "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong."

When people first come to Nepal from the West they note a lot of things that mark the differences between the two regions of the world. Really though there is one large difference, and that is that there are no systems or institutions that work in Nepal, where as much of the rest of the world from Singapore to London, well have working systems that make society run. To put it simply, nothing works in Nepal, including the labor force about half the time in my experience. People might take this as a derogatory statement on first reading, and that's up to the reader, but part of this is also what makes Nepal so charming, it's the fact that people are focused on family and personal relationships before careers or becoming professionals at their trade (in the commonly understood sense of what a professional is outside Nepal.) 

A woman at 1905 remarked to me that they should rename Nepal Murphystan, because this truly is a place where nothing ever works and the best laid plans almost always are met with something unexpected going horribly wrong. It's the land of Murphy's Law. The challenge in Nepal is not trying to avoid something going wrong, there really is no avoiding it, the trick is having the resourcefulness and contingencies in place to deal with the almost absurd things that you just can't imagine that always seem to happen. Sometimes it's freak weather coming out of nowhere at importunate moments, it's staff notifying you that they can't work because their father wants them to be at a puja, it's toilets being installed in horrible places because of some feng-shui system that says toilets can't face east or west (you can only poo facing north or south apparently!), or maybe it's deliveries not arriving because there is a bandh, or no power due to a sudden change in the load shedding schedule, or no elevator because the generator is out of diesel (and obviously there's no electricity anyway!). 

Currently I'm trying to get the restaurant up and running, getting systems in place that work, even in a country where nothing else does. It means teaching staff the difference between 25 + sauces that we make that they are all unfamiliar with. I knew this might be tough when I asked for ketchup and got a bunch of blank stares from my staff. I've since put three letter codes on everything, it seems to help. Ranch is now called RNC, gorgonzola dip is GOR, and so on. Due to the way food is prepared here, that things are bought fresh and there is no electricity half the time, much of my staff isn't familiar with using refrigeration all that much. Sometimes I find my cocoa powder in the fridge, but my tomatoes were left out. It's going to take some work, as many of the things we grow up with as common knowledge working in a western style kitchen is just not so common over here.

Also not so common is good food, which I thought would be all upside for us, but it has some drawbacks. See if the population you're serving has only ever eaten shitty versions of what you are making, they might think that what you are making "isn't quite right." Imagine if the only burger and fries you ever had was MCdonalds which is shit (in my opinion), and then you go to a real gastro-pub and have a real burger on fresh baked bread served with real cheese and fries made from real potatoes. The person who has only had MCd's might think the roll is too hard, the burger is too juicy, the flavor of the cheese is too strong, the fries are undercooked, etc. And who am I to say what is good or bad, it's simply a matter of taste but I've come to the conclusion that from my perspective the Nepali  crowd likes their food overcooked, their bread soft and cheap, they like an excessive amount of salt, don't really enjoy subtle flavors, like their sweets extremely sweet, have no stomach for anything sour, and have very small appetites for any dish that doesn't have rice. On that last point, I have halved most portions from what I would do in the US, and everyone is still convinced that the portions are huge. Adjusting some things to fit these tastes might be a bit of work, while at the same time not compromising the authenticity of the food we're making. That said there has also been some pleasant surprises, Nepali's apparently love real Nachos, and the Buffalo wings and Buffalo sauce in general seems to be a big hit. They are also far more willing to try real cocktails than most of my partners thought they might.

On the flip side the feedback from western clientele has been almost universally fantastic . All those things we miss, like fresh baked rolls that don't disintegrate while you eat, a variety of cheeses, beef that isn't over seasoned and overcooked, and all those other flavors and styles of cooking we crave from back home. Despite our ground floor looking like a construction site (well being a construction site), no signage, and little advertising, people are still seeking us out and even after a few attempts coming back to find us. It's really encouraging. 

Days start off making bread and battling with Chinese made ovens whose ignition systems work half the time (and I can't get serviced because no technicians in Nepal apparently want to work and get paid), whose temperature gauges are about 50 degrees C off, and go 16 hours until you guide people down off your tables after they've been dancing on "stage" after one too many jager bombs. Long days in Murphystan aren't without their challenges but real frustration only results from a lack of imagination in what could possibly go wrong, and that is the fault of the one who doesn't give Nepal it's due in that more things can go wrong here than anywhere else. After confiding in me her own long list of current problems she is fighting that was both long and absurd I just smiled at the owner of another restaurant in the Boudha area and we both laughed. It's what we both signed up for and we knew it. In leaving she just saluted and said "Never Surrender!" Never indeed.
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